Never has the focus on mental health been more prevalent. Evidence is starting to appear about the negative impact of COVID-19 on our mental health and increased levels of stress and burnout in the dental profession. New income protection claim figures from Dentists’ Provident mirror the rise in mental health concerns.
A growing number of studies have shown worsening mental health measures globally during the pandemic. A YouGov study from February this year on the impact of coronavirus on mental health and relationships, shows that more than half of Britons (53%) say that the situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the UK has harmed their mental health. Nearly two-thirds of the population (63%) have felt anxious at least several times a month since March 2020. One in five (20%) report feeling anxious on most days of the week or even more frequently.
Evidence shows that the mental health and wellbeing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been different for different groups of people, including those experiencing loss of income.
While the consequences of the pandemic on mental health are becoming evident for the wider population, the mental health of the dental profession has been looked at in more depth in the preceding decade and longer.
A new review commissioned by the General Dental Council (GDC), led by the University of Plymouth in collaboration with the University of Southampton, was published last month. It analysed research from the last 14 years on mental health in the dental profession to better understand the extent to which dental professionals experience mental health problems and the conditions that contribute to mental and emotional distress.
It has concluded that dentists suffer an increased level of stress and burnout, particularly general dental practitioners. Some studies suggested that poor mental health may lead to practitioners being less clinically confident and potentially impact treatment decisions.
The review also showed there is little or no research on the wellbeing of dental care professionals, such as dental nurses, dental hygienists and dental therapists.
“Mental health is higher on our society’s agenda than ever before, so we hope the review’s findings will prompt further studies into mental health and the interventions that can help,” says the review’s lead author, Anastasios Plessas.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health formed a part of their findings. In 2020 Mahendran et al. assessed the anxiety levels of 120 members of the dental department within Guy’s Hospital in London during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Close to a sixth (16.7%) of all respondents displayed severe symptoms of generalised anxiety, while over half (53.3%) of the respondents displayed some signs.
New claim figures from Dentists’ Provident mirror the reported strain on mental health. Last year mental health claims for psychiatric disorders including stress and anxiety were up by 43% compared to 2019 and more than two thirds (68%) compared to 2018.
Paul Roberts, Head of Claims at Dentists’ Provident said: “The past 18 months have seen a heavy focus on claims related to COVID-19. In 2020 we paid out nearly a million pounds more than the year before, with a large number of new claims for a virus, which simply didn’t exist before.
The sharp rise in mental health claims for 2020 versus the previous two years has been a very notable consequence of the pandemic, making it one of our most significant sources of claims from members.”
Financial security has a huge impact on our mental health too. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has stated that the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will have significant consequences for people’s health outcomes in the short and longer term.
Also, the independent social research organisation NatCen led a briefing paper in April this year, which showed that around 14% of its respondents who faced multiple financial struggles and took advantage of many different types of non-work-based financial support, reported a new mental health diagnosis between May 2020 and January 2021. Among adults who benefitted financially during the pandemic just 4% reported a new mental health diagnosis.
While our mental health has been affected as a result of the pandemic, the physical health of our population has in some areas taken a more positive turn following a year of turmoil.
Earlier this year GPs in England reported about a quarter drop of the five-year average in cases of influenza, colds and other common infections. Lockdown and social distancing played a huge factor in this, as well as an increased uptake in the flu vaccination last winter which may also have contributed.
Again, a trend recognised by Dentists’ Provident, with claims for short term infectious diseases like common colds reducing by 40% last year compared to 2018.
Interestingly recent research led by Professor Francois Balloux from UCL Genetics Institute has also found that common colds could prime our immune systems to fight off COVID-19.
With evidence addressing both the mental and physical impact of the pandemic and its lockdown restrictions, the question is what lies ahead. Following restrictions easing over the summer there have been initial spikes in both COVID-19 cases, as well as common colds and bronchitis, but as numbers settle, many are speculating what winter will bring.
In the meantime, the importance of our mental health has been brought much higher up the agenda. For the dental profession, the GDC commissioned review ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in Dentistry’ highlights the long-discussed mental health and wellbeing challenges dental professionals face during their professional lives.
In its conclusion the review points towards the importance of better understanding and responding to mental health issues. This will require, on an ongoing basis, the ability to consistently measure the mental health and wellbeing of UK dental team members. The hope is the review’s developing evidence base will inform how the dental sector responds in order to prevent and address professionals’ mental health issues at every stage in their career - from education, through into the workplace and through continuing professional development.
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